Tackle education problems at cause

Last updated 09:31 04/02/2014
Judith Nowotarski
Billie Brook Photography
JUDITH NOWOTARSKI" "Large bonuses to a few individuals may simply be a very expensive way of achieving not very much."

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OPINION: In the second of a series of articles evaluating education policies, NZEI Te Riu Roa President Judith Nowotarski writes that out-of-school factors such as socio-economic status are estimated to make up 70-80 per cent of the influences on student achievement.

It is fantastic that education is at the centre of the political agenda this election year. Significant sums have already been promised for primary schools and early childhood education to tackle the big issues, but the various political parties have very different ideas on how to give our children the best opportunities for a great education.

Some of these ideas line up with what teachers are seeing in the classroom and other policies are making the sector wary to say the least.

One of the key ideas in education is the importance of addressing child poverty and inequity early so children can succeed.

New Zealand's high rate of child poverty has received a lot of publicity recently. Out- of-school factors such as socio- economic status are estimated to make up 70-80 per cent of the influences on student achievement, so reducing and mitigating child poverty makes sense.

Labour has announced a strong focus on the early years, promising an extension of 20 hours free ECE to 25 hours, and allocating $25 million to new ECE services in areas of high poverty, as well as direct payments to families of children under five, which is a positive move to improve equity.

The Greens have announced a proposal to develop health, welfare and support service hubs in lower decile schools. NZEI Te Riu Roa believes this will be helpful in breaking the "fall" while more effort goes into constructing a fence at the top of the cliff.

NZEI welcomes any policy that goes right to the heart of tackling the biggest problem we face in our education system - the challenges too many children face in their learning because of damp or cold housing, inadequate clothing, lack of healthy food and family stress triggered by financial anxiety.

The second big idea in education is reducing the variability of students' achievement within and between schools by lifting teaching quality.

The Prime Minister has announced new "lead teacher" and "expert teacher" roles with additional payments of $10,000 and $20,000 a year respectively to lift teaching quality within and between schools.

It's likely to appeal to parents and looks sensible at first glance. However, the package failed to mention the biggest reason children do not succeed at school - a child's socio-economic status. In that respect, this pricey policy may be seen as tinkering at the edges.

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Moreover, the sector should have been consulted on the best way to use new funding to support student learning - for example, more direct support for students with special needs, professional development for teachers and support staff and sustainable incomes for support staff.

NZEI will be participating in the minister's working group on the $359m initiative, to ensure there is fairness and transparency and the best outcomes for children and their learning. However, we do not want to see these new positions identified or reviewed based on invalid and unreliable National Standards results as criteria for selecting or reviewing performance in these roles.

An NZCER survey published last November found only seven per cent of principals thought National Standards results were robust. National Standards outcomes do not show the true educational progress of a student, measure only the three Rs and are therefore an absurd and insulting way to identify great teachers.

NZEI has already done a considerable amount of work in the area of career pathways for teachers, principals, support staff and early childhood teachers. A new allowance for Advanced Classroom Expertise Teachers has been negotiated with the ministry and launches this month, with a process for identifying great teachers already agreed.

Labour's plan for greater teacher quality is to restore the target and funding for 100 per cent qualified teachers in ECE, which NZEI has been advocating since the National Government dropped it in 2009. Qualified teachers make a significant difference for all children, not just the over fives.

Currently ECE services are permitted to run with just 50 per cent trained teachers. Labour says it also has proposals for supporting quality teaching in the compulsory sector and we await that policy announcement with interest.

If anyone cared to ask the actual teachers what they thought was the best way to lift teacher quality, they would ask for professional development and collaboration opportunities that enhanced their teaching across all areas of the curriculum, from science to music. All government funding for professional development has been channelled into teaching teachers how to use National Standards, which does nothing for children who engage in learning more broadly, or for teaching quality or morale.

The third key idea in education is the importance of sharing best practice and of increasing collaboration rather than competition between schools and within schools.

In this context, the Prime Minister has also announced new "executive principal" and "Change principal" roles, paid an additional $40,000 and $50,000 a year respectively. The executive principal will be appointed by the Ministry and released for two days a week to lead 10 other schools. The "change principal" will be appointed to struggling schools.

The executive principal and expert teacher roles will be fixed-term positions and work two days a week across 10 other schools. Their performance, along with the lead teachers' performance, will be at least in part measured against National Standards achievement data and the extent to which they are "accelerating" student learning.

There are concerns about how this will impact on continuity in schools where teachers and principals are absent, and who teachers will now really be accountable to - their own principal, Board of Trustees and parent community, or an "executive principal"?

Parachuting highly-paid "change managers" who do not necessarily have an understanding of the local community or cultures into struggling schools has not worked overseas and could increase competition rather than collaboration, so the jury is still out on this idea. Large bonuses to a few individuals may simply be a very expensive way of achieving not very much.

No doubt there will be many more education policy announcements to come before we head to the ballot box. Teachers can only hope that the ideas dreamed up by politicians will match the realities in the classroom.

Judith Nowotarski is president of the largest education union, NZEI Te Riu Roa (New Zealand Educational Institute).

- The Press

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